[3 September 2010]
Angus Trumble has written a book about fingers. It’s a good conceit, as books about individual objects and body parts have made for some fun reads over the past few years: The Pencil by Henry Petroski and The Toothpick by the same author, the screwdriver history One Good Turn by Witold Rybczynski, Jim Dawson’s “Cultural History of the Fart” Who Cut the Cheese?, and so forth. So it seems only natural that Trumble, those previous book A Brief History of the Smile is fairly self-explanatory, should turn to another part of the body for anatomical inspiration. Which brings us to The Finger.
Trumble’s approach to the subject casts a wide net, taking in artistic and historical views, anatomical analysis, and cultural concerns, as well as some ruminations on the thumb. The book is divided into ten chapters—of course!—and is peppered throughout with erudition and puns. This is not a comprehensive study of the subject at hand (sorry), but a scattershot approach that takes in a wide array of ideas without going into any of them in any great depth. Often, this feels energetic and fun. On the other hand (ditto), the reader does occasionally find him/herself wondering why, exactly, Trumble is going on about this or that.
Trumble is an art historian, and his chapters are liberally illustrated with paintings and statuary in which fingers play a prominent role. There are a surprising number of iconic images in which this occurs—think of Adam languidly reaching for God’s powerfully outstretched index finger on the roof of the Sistine Chapel, or the various finger-signs of Jesus and Buddha, or the clutching, desperate figures in Picasso’s Guernica. Roman statuary often presents authoritarian males pointing forward, presumably urging on the masses to go build an aqueduct or do something about those darn Vandals.
Just as interesting, the pointing finger is one of the very first forms of communication learned by infants. As many new parents will attest, a baby first learns to register a desire for a thing by pointing at it, long before s/he knows its name or how to ask for it. Trumble adds, “All parents know what squalls may ensue when the baby discovers that the hotly desired thing is not yet available.” Ah, so he has met my neighbors.
Even as adults, we continue to use a multitude of gestures to acknowledge, positively or not, the presence of another—through sign language, thumb’s ups, high-fives, handshakes and the like—and of course by giving the finger. Trumble devotes an entire chapter—16 pages!—to the history and cultural significance of the gesture. Ancient Romans used it, often pointing straight out, not up; Australians flash both the index and middle finger in a V-shape; the Wikipedia-fueled legend that the gesture comes from defiant English archers showing that they still have the appendage necessary to pull their bowstrings is rubbish. No, the finger indicates just what it seems to, an erect phallus; some European cultures emphasize the point by positioning the adjacent fingers to resemble testicles. See all the fun things you can learn from reading books, kids?
Throughout, Trumble’s erudition is on display, as is his dry wit. Describing one of the many gestures used in Buddhist meditation, involving the layering of each successive finger on the second joint of the adjacent one—“easier said than done”, as he acknowledges—Trumble goes on to tell us that the gesture is related to a form of yoga “used to repress sexual urges. I have no doubt whatsoever that it is very effective.” As for obscene gestures that are so often offered while driving, “You can give someone the finger without taking your eyes off the road, and for small mercies I suppose we must be grateful.”
Chapters about communication, art, culture and anatomy are a good deal more interesting than those devoted to gloves and glove-making, or the successor to gloves, fingernail polish. While it’s true that his description of the ideal bacterial environment provided by nail polish is enough to make anyone think twice about using it, I found my attention wandering during these chapters. As for gloves, meh—they’re gloves. Let’s talk about fingers. Fortunately, these chapters are just detours, and we soon get back to the matter at hand (sorry again—no, really).
Maybe the most valuable consequence of a book like this is simply to remind us of the extraordinary miracles—of engineering, of evolution—that dangle on the very end of our arms, and which we so often take for granted. Trumble’s anatomical description of the mechanisms in our hands is enough to evoke wonder, as metacarpals, phalanges and ligaments all perform together in a sort of ballet every time we do something as simple as turn a key or stroke a lover’s face. The only thing more astonishing than their complexity of these movements is the extraordinary toughness and resilience of the mechanism that performs them. That’s surely something worth remembering.